Seven years ago, former Navy Petty Officer Melissa Zapata found herself in an unwelcome situation. Zapata had recently returned from her third deployment overseas with the United States Navy Amphibious Construction Battalion Two, where she served several months in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. While there, Zapatta’s forward-deployed Naval Construction Force (NCF) (also known as Seabees) came under repeated rocket and mortar fire. According to Zapata, this led to “years of paranoia, severe PTSD, sleeplessness, and a constant knot of anxiety that never seemed to go away.”

Zapata was honorably discharged, medically retired from the Navy in 2018, and initially sought treatment through the VA. However, like so many other veterans, she feels that the care she received only scratched the surface of what she needed. “I couldn’t hold down a job, I was failing classes at school, drinking way too much, and eventually my best friend and partner left me,” she says.

This is when Zapata decided to try something different.

“My family immigrated from Peru in the late ’90s, and my grandmother is still there. She told me about yagé (one of the many names for ayahuasca), this medicine that she had taken when her mother and father died when she was a girl,” says Zapata. “It took a lot of convincing, but eventually, I traveled home to see her and to try the medicine.”

According to Zapata, her first ayahuasca ceremony did more than help her confront the pain and trauma from her time in the military. It also taught her some incredibly important lessons about accepting and loving herself.

What is Ayahuasca?

What is Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a powerful psychoactive brew traditionally used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin for spiritual and healing purposes. It is made by combining two primary ingredients: the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant. The vine contains harmala alkaloids, which are MAO inhibitors (which allow the active drug to penetrate the blood-brain barrier when consumed orally, effectively allowing the “trip” to occur), while the leaves contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a potent hallucinogenic compound. When consumed, ayahuasca induces a complex and intense experience, often characterized by vivid visual and auditory hallucinations, profound introspection, and altered states of consciousness. The effects can last several hours, during which individuals might experience deep emotional and psychological insights.

Ayahuasca is typically consumed in a ceremonial setting, often led by a shaman or experienced guide who provides support and ensures the safety of participants. The ceremony’s purpose is often therapeutic or spiritual, aiming to facilitate personal growth, healing, and a deeper understanding of oneself and the universe. Research into ayahuasca’s effects has shown potential benefits for mental health, including reductions in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. However, it is also a powerful substance that can provoke intense emotional and psychological reactions, so it should be approached with caution and respect.(1)

Ten Things that Ayahuasca Helped Melissa Zapata Learn About Herself

Ayahuasca Helped Melissa Zapata


Inner Peace and Acceptance

Inner Peace icon

Ayahuasca may help you achieve a deep sense of inner peace and acceptance. Zapata found this to be true. “I was carrying so much guilt and anxiety from my tours in Afghanistan,” she recalls. “Aya helped me confront those feelings head-on. I finally faced the memories that haunted me every night, and for the first time in years, I felt a sense of peace and acceptance. I wasn’t a bad person for being afraid. That’s a normal human emotion, especially when you’re in real danger. Understanding that let me accept myself as what I am: a survivor.”



Self-Compassion icon

During ayahuasca experiences, you may have an opportunity to enhance your sense of self-compassion. Research from the Imperial College London suggests that psychedelics like ayahuasca can help reduce the default mode network’s activity, which is associated with self-referential thinking and rumination. In some cases, individuals with certain conditions, like depression and anxiety, may spend inordinate amounts of time being highly self-critical. By reducing the activity in the DMN, psychedelics may help them break out of these patterns. “I realized I had been my own worst critic,” Melissa says. “The ceremony showed me how to be kinder to myself. I learned to forgive myself for not being perfect and to see my struggles as part of my journey, not as failures. Once you understand that, you can pick yourself up again. That’s a distinct memory from my experience, I saw my family telling me, ‘It’s okay, we love you. When we fall, we don’t stay down. We get back up and keep trying.’”(1)



Interconnectedness icon

Another study titled Self Unbound: Ego Dissolution in Psychedelic Experience explores a common experience during an ayahuasca ceremony, which is a sense of interconnectedness with the universe. This feeling can lead to a profound appreciation for your unique role in the larger tapestry of life. “For the first time, I felt like I was part of something bigger,” Melissa shares. “I saw how my actions, pain, and healing were all connected to a larger story. This helped me appreciate my own life and the lives of those around me in a completely new way. Part of the message I received was to stop holding my family at arm’s length. I have an Abuela who loves me so much, and so do my mom and dad, and my sister. None of us are ever really alone, even if it feels like that sometimes.”(2)


Releasing Negative Patterns

Releasing Negative Patterns icon

Ayahuasca can help you identify and release negative thought patterns and behaviors. A study in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology highlighted how ayahuasca can lead to significant improvements in mental health by allowing you to confront and process deep-seated emotional issues. “I saw all the destructive habits I had picked up over the years,” says Melissa. “From my drinking problem to pushing people away, ayahuasca helped me see them clearly and gave me the strength to start letting those bad habits go while embracing new ways to cope with things. Instead of drinking, I write. Instead of running away from a problem, I confront it. Instead of staying away from my loved ones, I try to find as much time as possible to spend with them.”(3)


Enhanced Self-Awareness

Enhanced Self-Awareness icon

Heightened self-awareness may be a key benefit of ayahuasca experiences. One study, titled The Therapeutic Effects of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects Against the Diseases of Civilization, indicates that ayahuasca can help you gain insights into your true desires, values, and purpose. “The ceremony helped me rediscover parts of myself I had long forgotten,” Melissa notes. “I came out of it knowing what I really valued and wanted out of life. It gave me a new sense of direction and purpose. I didn’t want to hide from myself and the world anymore or drink my life away. I want to be part of everything, and now I know I can be.”(4)


Emotional Healing

Emotional Healing icon

Ayahuasca has the potential to facilitate deep emotional healing, which is crucial for self-love. Studies, such as those by the Beckley Foundation, demonstrate that ayahuasca can help you process and heal from past traumas. “I faced some of the darkest memories of my life,” Melissa admits. “But through that, I found the girl I used to be. The one that played in the rain and made mud pies with her sister. The girl who chased geckos and brought home bugs to show her parents. That is who I really am. I began to understand that, yes, my PTSD and anxiety are problems, but they aren’t me, and they don’t have to define me.”(2, 3)


Gratitude and Presence

Gratitude and Presence icon

Ayahuasca often enhances your feelings of gratitude and presence. Research published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that participants who used psychedelics reported increased feelings of gratitude and a deeper appreciation for the present moment. “I used to be so caught up in the past and worried about the future,” Melissa explains. “Ayahuasca helped me to appreciate the present moment. Instead of focusing my attention on the past, and always looking backward, I feel grateful for the little things in life again.”(4)


Creative Self-Expression

Creative Self-Expression icon

Unlocking your creative potential is another way ayahuasca can foster self-love. A study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, showed that psychedelics can enhance creative thinking and problem-solving skills. In Zapata’s case, this manifested in a return to her artistic roots from childhood. “I started painting and writing again after my ceremony,” Melissa reveals. “Ayahuasca opened up a creative side of me that I had shut down. It was a way to express my feelings and connect with myself on a deeper level. Instead of leaning on alcohol or partying for relief, I write about the things that inspire me, I tell myself and my family stories, I paint how I feel instead of drinking not to feel.”(5)


Overcoming Ego

Overcoming Ego icon

Ayahuasca has the potential to diminish the ego, allowing you to see yourself beyond societal labels and judgments. One study, titled Self Unbound: Ego Dissolution in Psychedelic Experiences, indicated that ayahuasca can reduce activity in the brain regions associated with the ego, helping you break free from limiting self-concepts. “I had built up so many walls around myself,” says Melissa. “Ayahuasca helped me see past those walls. I realized that my worth wasn’t tied to my achievements or failures. I learned to love myself for who I am, not what I have done or failed to do.”(6)


Spiritual Connection

Spiritual Connection icon

For many, ayahuasca facilitates a profound spiritual connection or awakening. Studies, such as those conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, have shown that psychedelics can lead to mystical-type experiences that provide a sense of unity and love from a higher power or the universe. “I felt a connection to something greater than myself,” Melissa reflects. “When you leave the military, you lose a sense of camaraderie and connection to something bigger than you. Ayahuasca was a deeply spiritual experience that made me feel loved and accepted. More importantly, I felt like I had an active place in a greater whole again. We, humans, the plants and animals, the spirit that lives in all of us and everything, it’s connected. You’re connected. Aya helped me see my worth and place in the world.”(7)

Psychedelics like ayahuasca are always going to provide unique experiences. Often, what one person sees or goes through will be informed by their past and present. For Melissa, this manifested in a way that allowed her to experience at least some closure and relief from the trauma she went through during her time in the Navy. For others, maybe for yourself, the experience will be as different and distinct as you are.

If you’re considering trying any psychedelic, including ayahuasca, take the time to study and learn about it, its cultural significance, and its effects. Psychedelics aren’t for everyone, but they can be a powerful tool for healing and self-growth when used respectfully and intentionally. Psychedelics are also not a panacea, and the real work can only begin after the effects of the drug have worn off. The best way to ensure that your psychedelic experience translates over to real change and success is through careful, meaningful integration and life changes.

This material is not intended as a replacement or substitute for any legal or medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about your health needs. Psychedelics are widely illegal in the United States, and readers should always be informed about local, state, and federal regulations regarding psychedelics or other drugs.

  1. Simon, Crosland‐Wood, M., Palmer, R., Netzband, N., Tsang, W., Weiss, B., Gandy, S., Cowley‐Court, T., Halman, A., McHerron, D., Jong, A., Kennedy, T., White, E., Perkins, D., Terhune, D. B., & Sarris, J. (2023). Ayahuasca: A review of historical, pharmacological, and therapeutic aspects. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences Reports, 2(4). 
  2. Letheby, C., & Gerrans, P. (2017). Self unbound: ego dissolution in psychedelic experience. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2017(1). 
  3. Ayahuasca compound changes brainwaves to vivid “waking-dream” state | Imperial News | Imperial College London. (n.d.). Imperial News. 
  4. Frecska, E., Bokor, P., & Winkelman, M. (2016). The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects against Various Diseases of Civilization. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 7(35). 
  5. Lowe, M. X., Kettner, H., Del, Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Jackson, H. (2024). Long-term benefits to psychological health and well-being after ceremonial use of Ayahuasca in Middle Eastern and North African immigrants and refugees. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 15. 
  6. Gonçalves, J., Pereira, L., Gallardo, E., & Ana Paula Duarte. (2023). A Systematic Review on the Therapeutic Effects of Ayahuasca. 12(13), 2573–2573. 
  7. Kuypers, K. P. C., Riba, J., de la Fuente Revenga, M., Barker, S., Theunissen, E. L., & Ramaekers, J. G. (2016). Ayahuasca enhances creative divergent thinking while decreasing conventional convergent thinking. Psychopharmacology, 233(18), 3395–3403. 
  8. Griffiths, R. (2023). Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.